2006 In Review

It is that time of the year when Bleeding Edge looks back on another 12 months of technology … which this year happens to be a particularly dangerous manoeuvre, what with the speed at which we’re heading in the opposite direction.

In 2006, after a sedate couple of years that followed the megahertz wars – a period when Intel and AMD tried to outdo each other every few months with incrementally faster releases – the computing world sniffed the air, caught a distinct whiff of cash, and suddenly pressed the accelerator.

Even those of us in the grip of Toad of Toad Hall Syndrome – we’re mad for speed, God help us – had to wonder quite where this new trend would lead. Rather than dabbling with megahertz, the CPU manufacturers started adding entire CPU cores.

Both Intel and AMD began dabbling with dual-core technology in 2005, but when Intel released its Core Duo CPU in January, then upped the stakes in July with the Core 2 Duo – bundling 291 million transistors on to the silicon, which boosted performance by up to 40 per cent, the technology really entered the mainstream. By the end of the year – ahead of schedule – Intel released its first quad-core CPU. At this rate, you can expect to be doing weather forecasting and calculating fluid dynamics on your little desktop PC in a year or two.

The new technology allowed Intel again to overtake AMD’s power advantages, while at the same time matching its once superior environmental credentials. The Core 2 Duo consumes 40 per cent less power than its predecessors.

Even Apple, mired for years in mediocre performance by Motorola’s inability to boost the performance of its CPUs without virtually cooking the Mac, acknowledged the superiority of the PC’s power source, switched to Intel’s Core 2 Duo and even higher-end Dual Core Extreme chips, giving the new-generation Macs the option of booting up under Windows XP.

RAM got faster too, and AMD gained DDR2 capability during the year. Computer users couldn’t get enough of the stuff. With Windows Vista finally released to manufacture after a five-year gestation, the accepted minimum for more than basic operations jumped from 1GB to 2GB. Fortunately, after a savage price spike during the year, by year’s end it was becoming more affordable. Perhaps even more significantly, the price of flash memory tumbled, and with practically everyone wearing a USB key or storing photos on digital cameras, it couldn’t have been more welcome.

With all those advances in hardware, software advances were relatively subdued. Vista offers security enhancements and some visual goodies, but it isn’t quite as powerful as it was supposed to be. In the death march to get it out the door, the architects were forced to strip out some of its more advanced features, and the initial release was confined to the business versions, meaning consumers will have to wait until late January. The effort to ship the product apparently took its toll on Bill Gates, with Microsoft’s chairman pre-announcing his retirement, in 2008.

Microsoft’s most promising performance for the year was the new Office 2007. It’s new interface, with its distinctive “ribbon”, offers users probably the first real incentive to upgrade since perhaps Office XP.

Australians fortunate enough to be located close enough to the right telephone exchanges also got a taste of high-speed Internet access. After a game of brinkmanship with the Federal Government, Telstra dropped its proposal for a high-speed FTTN (Fibre To The Node) network, but it finally joined ADSL2 pioneers iiNet and Internode in rolling out genuine broadband connections of up to 8Mbit/s. By December, that allowed more ISPs to re-bundle their service, and offer competitive high-speed connections. They will undoubtedly be in great demand, because 2006 saw broadband Internet connections take off. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, broadband connections almost doubled in the year to June, accelerating browser speeds, streaming video and downloads for roughly half (2.3 million) of local household Internet connections. Faster links also added to the attraction of Voice Over IP services, which became increasingly popular during the year. 

It was also the year of broadband wireless. Sydney-based Unwired joined iBurst in rolling out a city-wide radio network, and at the beginning of October, Telstra offered even wider high-speed wireless coverage with the launch of its Next G telephone network. By last week, it had rolled out two USB modems which would allow users to access its download speeds averaging 550k to 1.5Mbps. With prices on a 12-month plan, ranging from $39.95 to $49.95 for 200MB of data at 256kbps, and $49.95 to $79.95 for the faster “Super G Fast” plan, and excess usage charges 15c to 30c per megabyte, it appears much too fast for Bleeding Edge’s wallet, although corporate users are no doubt delighted. We’ll have to see what 2007 does to our bank account.

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